And the award is for playing it safe...

Should Steve McQueen and his splendid company of actors stroll up the red carpet at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles to pick up a statuette or two, spare a thought for Gordon Parks. Some 29 years before McQueen's film 12 Years a Slave collected 123 international awards (so far) and nine Academy Award nominations, the pioneer African-American photographer, musician and director made Solomon Northup's Odyssey for PBS. In 1984, it was still bright, conservative morning in Ronald Reagan's America. Aired on a little-watched public-service TV network, Parks's adaptation of a former slave's testament from the 1850s barely caused a ripple.

Although the director of Shaft, and celebrated photographer for Vogue and Life, had come out of retirement for the project, his movie sank almost without trace.

It doesn't much help an artist — and in particular a film-maker — to march too far ahead of the prevailing zeitgeist. Parks's TV drama vanished, and Northup's extraordinary memoir lapsed back into obscurity.

Critics who have seen both films find distinctive qualities in Parks's. For Bilge Ebiri, "to Parks, the idea of a black man — even one born free — being complacent about his situation in the mid-19th century was, in all likelihood, absurd".

He also makes Solomon merely pretend to flog a female fellow slave. "The dehumanisation here is much more subtle, in the ways that Solomon is forced to completely give up his own identity."

McQueen knew nothing about the book — let alone Parks's long-buried TV drama — when he decided to make a film about enslavement from the perspective of one shackled victim.

His partner, the historian Bianca Stigter, began to scour slave narratives. Soon she had her Eureka moment with Northup's book. She "ran up the steep stairs of our Amsterdam home" and announced: "I think I've got it. You can stop searching. Everything is in here."

12 Years a Slave was a bestseller. It had first appeared in 1853, just a year after Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Abolitionism flexed its muscles in the North, and the slave-owning South looked on in alarm.

A decade later, as scores of thousands of soldiers fell across the divided states, Abraham Lincoln paid his apocryphal tribute to the history-making power of fiction. "So this is the little lady," he reputedly said to Beecher Stowe, "who started this big war."

Historians brand that anecdote as mythical. But every author loves it.

Now cut to 21st-century Hollywood. Unlike the didactic, missionary fiction of the mid-19th century, commercial cinema tends not to pick a fight until and unless the enemy has already surrendered.

As an uncompromising artist's film, 12 Year a Slave does in some ways break the mould with its harrowing, visceral intensity. Yet the universal acclaim showered on McQueen has stuck to a classic studio script.

Issues too hot for Hollywood to handle will, inch by inch, slide from margin into mainstream. Writers, artistes, even TV producers, will go over the top and charge entrenched positions at the risk of ridicule, neglect or career-terminating outrage.

Then, in well-armoured limos, the top brass of LA will follow up.

Once no constituency with any heft or voice is left to object or (worse) boycott a potentially controversial film, the ritual orgy of self-congratulation breaks out.

The Independent


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